ashland.news
April 14, 2024

Ashland devising strategy to address floating encampments

Houseless advocates demonstrate before Tuesday's council meeting. Bob Palermini photo/@bobpal
April 6, 2023

Policies need to comply with federal, state laws as interpreted in court decisions; updated plan expected in about a week

By Erick Bengel, Rogue Valley Times

The city of Ashland is crafting a strategy to handle the unauthorized encampments that have appeared in prominent public spaces in town.

“We’re getting ready to make some changes in terms of how we go about implementing the state law related to campsites and unauthorized camping locations,” City Manager Joe Lessard told the Ashland City Council Tuesday night.

The city has been working through a proposal for about two months, Lessard said.

In that time, a group of houseless and nomadic protesters — calling their demonstration Stop Hunting Us — has been pitching tents around the city. The campers rotate among sites such as Triangle Park, Gateway Island between Ashland Public Library and Ashland Fire & Rescue, the lawn by the Ashland Police Department office, and the downtown Plaza, moving on when given 72-hours’ notice.

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard, left, consults with City Attorney Douglas McGeary at Tuesday’s meeting. Bob Palermini photo/@bobpal

“We understand that we need to be empathetic and supportive of those people who are distressed and houseless,” Lessard told the councilors. “But on the same token, we also have the need to reserve or preserve the rights of the public to enjoy its public spaces appropriately and not to have exclusive use of the public property or right of way.”

Lessard said a plan is expected to be ready within the next week or so.

“This will be an ongoing, evolving issue,” he said. “It is everywhere in the country, and it is a very important issue for every city to learn how to address and to appropriately deal with both those sides of the equation,” Lessard said.

City Attorney Douglas McGeary is reviewing the proposal, which outlines his office’s collaboration with Lessard, Ashland Police Department and other city departments “to identify alternatives and bases for accommodating, providing services and enforcing laws for persons camping in violation of our code,” he told the Rogue Valley Times in an email.

The RV Times sought a copy of the draft document. “As the proposal is still in the exploratory stage, it is not intended for public view and falls within the exception to disclosure,” McGeary wrote.

The final policy must comply with federal court rulings in Boise v. Martin — which determined that houseless people cannot face “criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property” if a locality lacks viable shelter space — and Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, which expanded on that ruling. McGeary said the city is “already fairly compliant” with both.

The policy must also align with two state laws. HB 3115 requires local governments to be “objectively reasonable” in how they regulate the time, place and manner in which people can camp on public property. HB 3124, in addition to requiring that campers receive three days’ notice to vacate an area, added protections to how their belongings left behind are collected and stored.

McGeary said these laws are “expected to have a greater practical impact than federal laws.”

The city will have to refine its ordinances to address the time, place and manner in which people can camp in the town’s public spaces, he said.

Unsure whether the city would address the encampments, locals have started proposing their own regulations.

Gabe Howe talks about his “1,000 Feet 4 Kids” idea Tuesday at an Ashland City Council meeting. Bob Palermini photo/@bobpal

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Gabriel Howe of Ashland, proposed that campers be kept 1,000 feet from libraries, playgrounds and schools. The proposal did not apply to parks, though several people who spoke against his proposal believed it did.

Saying the approach is meant to protect the community’s children, he called the proposal “1,000 Feet 4 Kids.”

“I think you all are going to do the right thing,” he told the council. “I think that you’re going to move forward, and you’re going to do what it takes to protect these gateways where our kids once felt safe.”

He said he is on the side of the campers.

Supporters of houseless individuals hold up signs at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. They say camping would be prohibited in areas shown by the blue dots. Bob Palermini photo/@bobpal

“This nation, and this community, has failed them. At the local level, we failed them by not getting on top of this … and through that we’ve let this problem compound, and now our kids no longer feel safe in our community.”

He said that, when the council addresses the encampment issue, “I think it’s really important to take careful consideration in the execution of it, and make sure that it is done in a way that lends compassion and dignity and respect to our houseless friends in this community.

“We do not want to have a sweep,” he continued. “We want our city leaders to approach these folks, extend a generous hand and take back control of this narrative.”

He had pitched “1,000 Feet 4 Kids” on Facebook, asking supporters to show up with prepared statements and signs. At the meeting, only Howe spoke in favor of the idea.

Joseph Gibson of Stop Hunting Us speaking Tuesday at an Ashland City Council meeting. Bob Palermini photo/@bobpal

Joseph Gibson, the leader of the Stop Hunting Us protest, said he believed that Howe’s online appeal would spark an anti-houseless demonstration. He organized a counterdemonstration; protesters showed up with testimony and signs of their own. Outside the chambers, more than 10 tents dotted the lawn.

Anna Ford, the first of more than a dozen speakers who lambasted “1,000 Feet 4 Kids,” called the idea “ridiculous.”

Ford pointed out that some of the houseless campers are themselves children.

“Let people camp where they need to camp,” said Ford, who lives near Triangle Park. “They are part of our community. They’re our friends. They’re here. Creating fear, boundaries — weird boundaries, random boundaries — that are really excluding people from Ashland — and they’re a part of Ashland — is really wrong, and it’s a form of social terrorism.”

When the meeting ended a couple of hours later, campers in the tents just outside were bedding down for the night.

Reach reporter Erick Bengel at ebengel@rv-times.com or 458-488-2031.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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